Florida State proves it can win even when Winston makes mistakes
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jimbo Fisher finished his press conference late Saturday night, unrolled his stat sheet and took one more look. "He is soooo bad," Florida State's coach said. Then he smiled and recited quarterback Jameis Winston's statistics.
Fisher had spent the previous 10 minutes discussing his signal-caller's shortcomings on a night when Winston completed 21-of-29 passes for 325 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Those two picks produced the first adversity the Seminoles have faced all season. Florida State still thrashed Miami, 41-14. For the first time all year, Winston showed flaws. He made mistakes. Yet Saturday proved the players around Winston are so good that even when its star redshirt freshman plays like a redshirt freshman, Florida State can still destroy a previously undefeated opponent. "They put me on their shoulders," Winston said, "and they carried me all the way."
Both of Winston's interceptions came on deep passes that were forced across the middle. The first landed in the hands of Miami safety Deon Bush. The second was grabbed by Miami safety Rayshawn Jenkins. On each pick, Winston could have checked down and completed a shorter pass. Each interception led to Hurricanes quarterback Stephen Morris throwing a beautiful pass to receiver Allen Hurns in the end zone. At the half, Florida State led only 21-14. For a team that has bludgeoned its opponents early, this represented a real threat.
Miami came north with a plan to take the deep ball away from Winston, and his bravado got the better of him early. Even after the Seminoles beat a blitz with a screen to tailback Devonta Freeman for a 48-yard touchdown with 5:08 remaining in the second quarter, Winston still got greedy one more time. A deep ball intended for tight end Nick O'Leary wound up in the hands of Jenkins, and a 14-yard Morris-to-Hurns connection cut Florida State's lead to seven.
Fisher was not concerned, though. "When you keep making decisions as a quarterback, you're going to make one wrong," Fisher said. "But I was extremely proud of the way he dealt with that."
How did Winston deal with his errors? By making a promise. In the locker room at halftime, Winston told his offensive teammates he wouldn't throw any more interceptions. He then pulled aside the curtain that separates the offense from the defense and told Florida State's defenders he wouldn't put them in a difficult position with another turnover. "You can't turn the ball over that early," Winston said. "I still believe this. If I hadn't thrown those interceptions, they wouldn't have scored. They wouldn't have gotten on the scoreboard."
Miami added nothing to the scoreboard the rest of the way. Florida State's defense held Morris to 75 second-half passing yards and intercepted him twice. The Hurricanes' offense took a severe blow when tailback Duke Johnson -- who had carried 23 times for 97 yards -- went down in the third quarter with an injury to his lower right leg. After the game, Johnson lay on a cart with what appeared to be a cast on the leg, but Hurricanes coach Al Golden said he didn't have an update on the sophomore's condition.
Winston, meanwhile, was happy to hit Freeman or O'Leary underneath. Instead of throwing bombs, Winston let his playmakers rack up yards after the catch. "The kid did a great job hitting his second and third receivers, and they made big plays," Golden said of Winston.
Hurricanes defensive end Anthony Chickillo also helped the Seminoles focus by reminding them that Florida State-Miami is and always has been a blood feud. After a third-quarter play, Chickillo and Seminoles left tackle Cam Erving wrestled on the ground. After 'Noles right tackle Bobby Hart intervened, Chickillo tried to shove both hands inside Hart's facemask. Officials flagged Hart and Chickillo, and several other players joined the fray. Winston said he helped pull Chickillo off Hart, and afterward Winston got in his own tackle's face, reminding Hart that the team needed him. Getting tossed wasn't an option. The fight removed any lingering respect the Seminoles had for the Hurricanes. "After that skirmish, it was over," Winston said. "All that nice stuff, all the GameDay stuff with them being compared to us, it was over. We didn't care about it any more. We knew we had one goal, and that was to beat them bad."
As the blowout reached its conclusion, fans began chanting "We want 'Bama!" Seminoles players pretended not to hear. Fisher, a former Nick Saban assistant who has modeled his program after Saban's, declined to answer questions about whether the Seminoles might deserve a spot in the BCS title game. After all, Florida State has four more regular-season games and -- barring an epic letdown -- the ACC championship. "I don't worry about that right now," Fisher said. "We're going to keep playing and take care of business."
The players elaborated a little more, but they realize they'll have no control if voters and computers have to choose two teams from an elite group that at the moment includes Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State and Baylor. "The crowd can't play Alabama," cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "We have to keep doing what we have to do in between those white lines if they want to ever see that matchup."
When asked about his home-state team, Hueytown, Ala., native Winston played the one-game-at-a-time card. But when pressed about the quality of his team relative to the best teams in the country, Winston didn't hesitate to throw the Seminoles into the mix. "I believe that we have one of the best teams in the country. We have Alabama. We have Oregon. We have Ohio State. Those are great programs, great teams. But I really believe that we have a great team with all the weapons that we have."
On Saturday, the Seminoles learned they can still be great even when Winston isn't perfect.